Author Q&A - Tracy Kidder

A new nonfiction novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder recounts the story of one young man who lived through the strife and left the nation in 1994 for New York City.

Kidder writes in the book that by the time Deo, the book’s main character, left Burundi, “Burundi had become hell.”

“In Deo’s mind, there was danger everywhere,” Kidder writes. There was no safe place, not even on the airplane that was going to ferry Deo away from the war-torn nation.

Sitting on the runway waiting for the plane to take off, “He [Deo] felt like he was about to vomit. Everyone had heard stories of planes being shot down, not only the Rwandan president’s plane back in April but others as well,” Kidder writes.

In Strength in What Remains, Kidder traces Deo’s story: Arriving in New York, Deo spoke almost no English and had only $200. He slept in Central Park and delivered groceries to earn a living. Deo’s unyielding determination provided him with a series of chance encounters that changed his life and eventually allowed him to receive an Ivy League education and return to his country to open a health clinic.

Kidder sat down with The Hill to discuss his new book.

Q: Now that you have published this book, what do you hope that the audience takes away from it?
I aspire to make the world new again. We know the truths, that war and genocide is a terrible thing, that charity happens … what I had in mind here is to make the audience experience these thing, not as truism, but as we experience those things in our lives — through Deo. That is what good writers do. This is what I aspire to do.

Q: Do you see the world differently since you have written this book?
Yes. Absolutely. Deo’s adopted father, Charlie, said, “In a big city like New York you see all of these people who are clearly from foreign countries and they are doing generally pretty menial jobs — hotel maids, cab drivers, guys delivering groceries.” Once you hear a story like Deo’s, you think, “Who are these people, really? Where did they come from? What abilities do they have that they may never get to use?” In that sense, I hope this book will humanize those unseen parts of the Upper East Side — those anonymous faces. I also hope to humanize a piece of Africa.

Q: Are there any lessons that can be applied?
We are an increasingly interconnected world. I think we really have to look hard at the population of the world. We have to be alert to public health and epidemics, and when organizations set out to work on these issues, we needed to measure and monitor their results. There are very effective organizations out there and there are ones that aren’t so good. And we need to cut off the ineffective ones.

Q: Seeing the poor quality of healthcare in Africa and Haiti, do you think the American government has a responsibility to provide a baseline minimum level of healthcare coverage for Americans?
Yes. There is a basic right for human beings to have healthcare. You need to remember that we are in this together. Infectious diseases do not care if you are rich or poor. It is true that the poor will be much more heavily afflicted by disease, but I think for the good of the whole, I think we think about everyone.